Kenzaburo Oe



Kenzaburo Oe: Laughing Prophet and Soulful Healer

by Michiko Niikuni Wilson*

Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, with his insistence on engaging the reader in a provocative dialogue on the human condition, is one of the most impassioned voices of conscience countering the country’s minimalist cultural tradition that puts imagery and aesthetics of silence above social and political concerns.

Filtering the intellectual and cultural legacy of the Western world, his works probe the vital connection between the socio-political and the personal in a style imbued with the imaginative power of the oral tradition of his birthplace and bursting with the explosive energies of Bakhtinian grotesque realism. His aberrant images, reminiscent of Gaston Bachelard’s definition of imagination, stud complex multi-layered narratives, in which the diverse voices of his characters resonate with one another within and between reinvented texts. Both conceptually and stylistically, Oe has delivered modern Japanese literature out of its long isolation and into the heart of world literature.

The Absolute Father: Ambiguous Lessons of Japan’s Past

The moral trajectory of Oe’s literary odyssey was determined by the contradictions inherent in Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War and the underlying ideology of the Emperor system that enabled it. His lifelong ambivalence regarding the ‘father image’ is rooted in this prewar ideological indoctrination centered on the divine Emperor who neither saw, heard, nor spoke to his loyal subjects. From 1931 onward, Japan pursued totalitarianism and military expansionism in the name of the Emperor: the takeover of Manchuria, the invasion of China proper, aggression toward Europe’s Asian colonies, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. As required by the imperial education edict, Oe and the other schoolchildren in the village were asked on a daily basis, “If the Emperor commands you to die, what will you do?” The expected reply was, “I will cut open my belly and die.” Although no less patriotic than his classmates, Oe was so traumatized by this forced ritual that he often could not utter a word, inviting severe beatings from his teacher. Yet on August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito spoke in a human voice and made two unthinkable radio announcements: Japan’s unconditional surrender and the renunciation of his divinity. Overnight the nation recanted the cultural-political ideology imposed on its people. Earlier, when his two older brothers were mobilized for the war effort, the nine-year-old Oe had become the family’s de facto eldest son. In 1944 he lost both his father and grandmother. On the night of his father’s sudden death, perhaps already in thrall to his sense of ambiguity about male authority figures, Oe disobeyed his mother’s order to shout as hard as he could to call back his father’s soul. The memory of her icy glare and harsh words of disapproval haunted him for almost a decade.

Japan’s surrender released conflicting emotions that began to grow and take deep root in Oe: a sense of both humiliation/subjugation and liberation/renewal. The democratic principles in Japan’s new Constitution were to become central to his humanist beliefs, but at the same time everything taught in school about the divine father had been proven to be a lie. He had once believed in the intoxicating absolutism of the living god, but adults had betrayed him. Moreover after the surrender, the Emperor neither disavowed the disastrous direction Japan had taken, nor acknowledged the nation’s atrocities, and the United States insisted that he should not be held accountable for any of Japan’s war crimes. Many of Oe’s works are energized by this sense of contradiction, fueled, in John Nathan’s words, by an energy “that arcs between the poles of anger and longing.” [1] This ambiguity is so much the hallmark of Oe’s work that he would later entitle his Nobel Lecture, ‘Japan, the Ambiguous and Myself,’ consciously differentiating himself from Japan’s only other Nobel Laureate in Literature, Yasunari Kawabata, whose 1968 Nobel Lecture was entitled ‘Japan, the Beautiful and Myself.’

Oe’s Early Life and Literary Debut

Before the reality of wartime Japan was thrust upon him, Oe’s life had had an idyllic beginning. He was born in 1935 in Ôse village, the third of eight children, in a valley nestled deep in the lush forest of central Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. He learned the art of storytelling from his grandmother and mother, master raconteurs and repositories of the oral tradition of this remote region. His father was a wholesale supplier of raw materials for banknote paper, and a year before his death, over a cup of sake after the end of the day, would often speak to the young son kneeling at his feet about how much he regretted being a local merchant and living a life devoid of mental stimulus. He repeatedly instructed his son to get an education. [2]

Oe was the only sibling in his family to receive a college degree. Although he loved science and mathematics, he nonetheless chose French as his major, specializing in Sartre and French humanism at Tokyo University under the tutelage of Kazuo Watanabe, Japan’s foremost expert on sixteenth-century writer François Rabelais. Soon after his admission to the University in 1954, Oe began to submit stories to the All-Japan Student Fiction Contest, for which he twice received honorable mention. Then in 1957, A Strange Job [3] won the University’s prestigious May Festival Prize, and the following year, Prize Stock [4] was given the coveted Akutagawa Prize, establishing Oe as the most innovative writer of the young generation. Set in a village community, whose bucolic life is abruptly disrupted by the war, this story introduces for the first time a pair of brothers, a young boy as the ‘older brother,’ and an infant as the ‘younger brother.’ The image of the infant as a foundling and as a hermaphrodite, who embraces the unity of opposites in his primordial state, is pivotal in Oe’s opus.

The need to remember history and to practice civil disobedience in the face of monolithic power is the basis of another powerful story from the same year, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. [4] Among many anecdotes Oe heard as a child from his grandmother was that of the brutal killing of a young Japanese deserter at the hands of a village mob after the futile attempt of a Korean boy to hide him. Oe expands this incident, interweaving it with the betrayal by adults of a group of reform school boys evacuated to their village during the war. In a correspondence with Günter Grass in 1995, Oe cited this story to indicate his agreement with Grass’s rhetorical question – apropos of the more than 20,000 German deserters in the Second World War put to death by military tribunals – “Weren’t they the true heroes of the war?” [6] During this same period Oe also focused on the sexual overtones and political implications of Japan’s surrender in Sheep (1958), [7] Leap Before You Look (1958), [8] and Our Times (1959). [9]

In 1960, Oe married Yukari Itami, the sister of Juzo Itami who was to become a highly successful film director. In the same year, politics intruded again into Oe’s life. Dissatisfaction with the lopsided United States–Japan power relationship came to the surface over the ratification of the United States–Japan Mutual Security Treaty, prompting the largest demonstrations in Japanese history. In a clash with the police during one of the demonstrations, a close friend of Oe’s sustained permanent brain damage and later committed suicide. The image of this tormented soul driven to suicide, takes center stage in Oe’s later narratives. Despite the highly politicized nature of his work, Oe has never belonged to a political party, nor has he been politically active apart from participating in disarmament conferences and a rally to protest the imprisonment of the Korean dissident writer Kim Chi Ha. Recent pressure from the Japanese right-wing and the United States to revise Article 9 of Japan’s Peace Constitution, which guarantees Japan’s “renunciation of war as a means of settling international disputes,” has led him and eight other ageing intellectuals to form ‘The Article 9 Society’ in order to educate the general public on its importance.

The Father with Hope in Despair

Oe’s early socio-political consciousness was to be reinforced by the birth of his first child, Hikari, in June 1963, a boy born with a defective cranium that required multiple operations. The doctor’s bleak prognosis for the newborn became fused in Oe’s mind with the image of the ‘little boy lost’ in William Blake’s Song of Innocence, in which the boy searches for a father who has abandoned him. These reflections revived images of Oe’s own traumatized childhood and the terror of the Nuclear Age, an era that began with Japan’s defeat. While his infant hovered between life and death that summer, the young father participated in the annual Peace Memorial Service for victims of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. He returned spiritually transformed by his encounter with the survivors of the blast, who faced their agony with indomitable courage, and from conversations with Dr. Fumio Shigefuji, who counselled Oe to give in to neither hope nor despair. The father, who had assumed his son would die, saw a ray of hope for the future.

Hikari – meaning ‘light,’ as in a beacon – said nothing intelligible and showed no indication of hearing during his first five years, reacting only to a recording of over a hundred wild bird songs. One day, while Oe was strolling with Hikari astride his shoulders, and as chirping birds flew over the treetops in the forest, the boy announced, mimicking the voice on the recording, “They are water rails.” His parents learned that, despite his autism, poor eyesight and epileptic seizures, he was endowed with perfect pitch. Later awakened to the sounds of classical music and now a successful composer, he has found a means of communicating his private emotions through music. Like a mythological character transposed into a constellation, Hikari is transposed into the central fictional character in Oe’s mature works, in which Hikari is the incarnation of Oe’s profound affinity with the ‘little boy lost,’ the abandoned foundling, the outsider, and the anomaly.

Oe and son

The Personal Is Political

Three major themes are woven through Oe’s opus: the spirit of defiance against the image of the absolute father, the evolution of the father–son relationship, and the convergence of Oe’s archetypal child, the ‘little boy lost,’ and the messianic hero. The father–son pair, an obsessive metaphor for longing and redemption, marks the reciprocity between one work and another, the later texts reacting actively to the earlier ones as part of one large narrative in progress. The personal and the political intermingle and overlap with an intertextual permeability.

As we have seen, the first theme arose from Oe’s quarrel with the ideology of the Emperor system and the way in which its hidden tentacles encroach on the Japanese political imagination. He calls it kakuremino, a magic coat that makes the wearer invisible. [10] For him, this is no mere intellectual quibble. In 1961 he published two novellas in succession, Seventeen [11] and its sequel A Political Youth Dies. [12] They are based upon a real event, the stabbing to death of Inejiro Asanuma, the Socialist Party Chairman, by a young Emperor-worshipping terrorist in October 1960. The actual assassin committed suicide in his jail cell. To the outrage of right-wing extremists, Oe eroticized the youth, turning him into a masturbating teen-ager caught up in a vision of a glorious Emperor. “I did not write these stories to investigate Japan’s right-wing movement,” Oe wrote in 1966. “It was nothing more than an attempt to elaborate on the image I have of the Emperor system and its omnipresent shadows, which exist within and outside each one of us. I have never, ever treated the story’s hero with derision.” [13] Critic Masao Miyoshi agreed, praising the characterization of the hero for “its tone, thought, style, sensitivity, responsiveness, and mental alacrity.” [14]

However, Oe withdrew the work from publication after he received many threats on his life, and he has chosen to keep the publication out of print to this day. He was also vilified by leftists for the public apology that the publisher had released (without Oe’s knowledge), and for the story’s withdrawal from publication. History repeated itself thirty-five years later when, just after the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, Oe declined Japan’s highest honor, the Imperial Order of Culture, created in 1937 by Emperor Hirohito. After turning it down, Oe was again harassed day and night with death threats from the right wing.

In 1970, Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide, an ultra-conservative political act calculated to incite the public to restore imperial rule, offered Oe an opportunity to reiterate his central message without triggering a right-wing attack. The literary weapon he chose was parody, a vehicle that allowed him to defuse his own fear of the terrifying image of the divine father who leads his children astray, as well as to mock his own sense of longing for the image of the absolute father. In The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away (1972), [15] Oe draws the portrait of a delusional father dying of bladder cancer, a pseudo-Emperor who ensconces himself in a barber’s chair in the family storehouse and plots to bomb the Imperial Palace with his little son-soldier on August 16, the day after the Emperor’s momentous announcement. Amidst the Rabelaisian gaiety and farce and quixotic madness, Oe’s Don Quixote rides a “wooden fertilizer box with sawed-off legs for wheels,” his opaque goggles preventing him from seeing or being seen. In a mixture of confession, testimony, memoir, allegory, and a “history of the age,” the now grown-up son narrates what he thinks must have happened to him and his father on that fateful day, an account that his own mother continually discredits. The child felt compelled to continue his father’s hallucinatory journey to meet “the colossal chrysanthemum topped with a purple aurora,” the symbol of the Emperor.


The “Chronicle of the Disobedient Nation”

The Football Game of the First Year of Man’en (1967) [16] is the first in a series of narratives that could be given this collective title. In this novel, Oe wedges what he calls an “imaginative clamp” between two historical events: an 1860 peasant uprising that took place in his birthplace and the demonstrations against the renewal of the United States–Japan Security treaty in 1960. Through the clamp’s “pliant, dangerous, and unstable dynamism,” [17] two brothers in each time period fulfill parallel destinies in this complex, stratified narrative.

Oe continues the “chronicle of the disobedient nation” in The Game of Contemporaneity (1979) [18] and its retelling aimed at younger readers, M/T and The Tale of the Marvels of the Forest (1986). [19] They recount an oral history in a world outside the orbit of the Emperor, an alternative world belonging to dissident samurais who were chased deep into the forest and turned into ‘demons.’ Oe’s medium is the saga of what he calls “the village=nation=mini–cosmos” in the valley, complete with a creation myth, the fertility goddess Oshikome, a Mishima Shrine, and a folkloric healer and trickster named ‘The One Who Destroys,’ who only makes his presence and intentions known in dreams.

In the novel Oe illustrates the concept of liminality developed by the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, the “betwixt-and-between” state characterized by invisibility, outsiderhood, and marginality, yet also the locus of great potential for renewal. Oe’s jar-shaped mythic land, the hidden basin, so similar to the keyhole shape of kofun, the ancient imperial burial mounds of Japan, sits on a monumental graveyard from which new life may yet emerge.

Using a full arsenal of satire, parody, black humor, and slapstick, Oe describes unthinkable deeds. Reversals and transformations characterize the actions of the samurais in their initial search for a refuge. Their final defeat comes about in a hilarious ‘Fifty-Day War’ launched by the ragtag guerrilla army against the Imperial Army, which unfolds as a battle of wits between ‘The No-Name Captain’ and ‘The One Who Destroys.’ It terminates in the guerrilla army’s unconditional surrender to avert the impending destruction of the entire forest, the cosmological centre of the disobedient nation, by the Imperial Army. For the forest – the Japanese word is mori – is also a symbol of renewal. ‘Mori’ is also a homophone of the Latin word ‘to die,’ a reference to Hikari’s near-death in infancy, and it is the name Oe gives his archetypal child character in a parallel series of novels to be discussed in the next section, which weaves the concepts of antithesis, ambivalence, and androgyny in a shifting dialectic that produces a unified whole.

Modeled after Diego Rivera’s panoramic mural entitled ‘Dream on a Sunday Afternoon in the Central Alameda’ (1947–48), The Game of Contemporaneity operates on the same principles of simultaneity and coexistence that exist in a mural. In another visual experiment, Oe stresses the existence and significance of the folkloric cultural trickster hero throughout the novel in question by having the name ‘The One Who Destroys’ set in boldface type. It is as if the entire text of the novel were the virgin forest, which the narrator tries to traverse in order to reassemble his bones and minced flesh and to resurrect him.

‘Little Boy Lost’: The Evolution of the Father–Son Relationship

To give form to his second overarching theme, the evolution of the father–son relationship, Oe mines and probes his personal tragedy in an ‘idiot son’ narrative cycle, weaving stories of a father and a son that overlap with Hikari’s life at different ages. Each story dovetails with the next, expanding into one continuous mural-like scroll.

In Agwhee the Sky Monster (1964), [20] a baby, dead and nameless like the rabbit in the film ‘Harvey,’ haunts his murderer father. In A Personal Matter (1964), [21] he is reborn as the very embodiment of the fighting spirit. As the symbol of the affirmation of life in Father, Where Are You Going? (1968), [22] whose title is taken from a poem by William Blake, the son becomes the lifelong companion of his father, who in turn is obsessed with restoring the image of his own reclusive father. In Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969), [23] a title taken from W.H. Auden’s Commentary, the four-year-old ‘idiot son’ Mori, nicknamed Eeyore, is transformed from a son mocked by a cynical parent into a father who protects his own traumatized father from an outside world filled with terror and pain.

Oe shifts the arena of action from the private to the public sphere by exposing the idiot son to the outside world in The Waters Are Come in Unto My Soul (1973) [24] and The Pinch Runner Memorandum (1976). [25] In both works, the father–son pair is expanded to include a young woman: in the former, the five-year-old son, named Jin, finds a surrogate mother; in the latter, Mori acquires a girlfriend. In The Pinch Runner Memorandum, which is the culmination of the ‘idiot son cycle,’ Oe takes Mori a step further, by situating him in a carnivalesque world of grotesque realism and fantasy. The existence of a severely handicapped son ceases to be an impediment; instead it becomes a cause for celebration. The barrier between the physical and the mental is removed, freeing Mori from idiocy. A miraculous ‘switch-over’ takes place in a dreamless dream in which the father, who had been exposed to radiation, experiences his body turning inside out “as if giving birth to a clone.” Oe thrusts the 28-eight-year-old Mori, accompanied by his right-hand man – his ‘switched-over’ teen-aged father – into a dangerous mission to foil a terrorist plot. Oe also changes the basic nature of the parent-child relationship from one of discipline to one of intimacy as the two achieve telepathic communication through their clasped hands. Mori is cast as a true hero, initiating his transformation into a messianic figure in later novels.

The Convergence of the ‘Little Boy Lost’ and the Messianic Hero

In the trilogy The Flaming Green Tree (Until a Savior Is Whacked in the Head, 1993; Vacillation, 1994; and On the Great Day, 1995), [26] the defiance of an absolute father and the evolution of the father–son relationship merge with the third theme distinguishable in Oe’s work: the convergence of the Blakean little boy lost and the messianic hero. In this trilogy Oe, who says he has “no religion,” chooses to imagine the possibility of spiritual redemption through an egalitarian, syncretic church. The narrative turns on the significance of the Japanese word ten’kan, which means both ‘epilepsy’ and ‘transformation’ (or ‘switch-over’). Epilepsy is a vehicle for the metamorphosis of the idiot son into a savior. His father, like the boy in Blake’s Songs of Innocence who is guided by the “wand’ring light” and finds his way back to a secure world, finally attains solace in his epileptic, vulnerable savior son.

Named New Big Brother Gii in the trilogy, the son is the last repository and expositor of his village’s oral tradition. He is anointed as the successor of the original Big Brother Gii during the village matriarch’s cremation, when the bird that holds her departing soul in its beak transfers the soul to him. The father immediately foresees his son’s tragic future in Yeats‘s The Man and the Echo: “Up there some hawk or owl has struck, Dropping out of sky or rock. A stricken rabbit is crying out, And its cry distracts my thought.” [27] Thus begins the portrait of a ‘savior’ disinclined to believe in his healing power or leadership, and who discourages the growth of the sect that forms around him.

The syncretic nature of this ‘Flaming Green Tree Church’ is illustrated in its gospel (a collage of quotations from a wide range of sources), the absence of any set prayer, and the exultant greeting ‘Rejoice!’, taken from Yeats’s The Gyres. The core followers embark on a search for equilibrium of the soul through a re-reading of Yeats’s poetry, especially Vacillation. The concepts of pairing and androgyny associated with the character Mori are now represented in the trilogy by the hermaphrodite Sa-cchan, the chronicler of the church, and by the metaphorical tree of extremities, “its half all glittering flame and half all green/A bounding foliage moistened with the dew.” Oe carefully develops the gradual split of the small, spontaneous gathering of spiritual redemption seekers as one group demands centralization, authority, and structure, while the other opts for permeability, openness, and individual choice. Caught between two opposing factions, the ‘savior’ renounces the leadership of the sect in order to retain the original spirit of the ‘church,’ and is later stoned to death by a small group of extremists.

From Sacrificed Savior to Holy Apostate

Oe has been called a visionary writer, not least because the publication of the trilogy’s final volume in March 1995 occurred on almost the same day as the Tokyo subway attack by the Aum Shinrikyo extremist religious sect. Somersault (1999) [28] was written specifically with the Shinrikyo sect in mind, and is inspired by Gershom Scholem’s research on the seventeenth-century messiah Sabbatai Zevi. Oe reflects on the implications of the ‘Holy Apostasy,’ Sabbatai’s conversion from Judaism to Islam, an apparently cowardly act that is now being reassessed by historians as an attempt to reconcile two opposing belief systems.

Somersault‘s ‘savior’ successfully defuses a nuclear terrorist plot by the extremist members of his sect, not only by recanting on television every belief and teaching he shared with his followers, but also by deliberately orchestrating his apostasy as a slapstick media event. Later, after ten years of self-exile, the ‘savior,’ renamed Patron, returns along with the Guide to start a new church, only to face another crisis, this time a mass suicide planned by the twenty-five Quiet Women, who decide to be lifted in rapture to heaven. Oe turns to a satirical, scatological ploy of Rabelaisian proportions to resolve the crisis: a poison is replaced by laxatives. His allegorical tale neutralizes the absolute power of a religious sect or leader, and offers a vision of an alternative world that has pulled back from the extremes of cultism and authoritarianism.

At the time of the publication of the trilogy, Oe called it “his last novel.” But fortunately for the reading public, he was persuaded by the Nobel Committee to resume writing fiction. Between 1999 and 2005, he wrote another trilogy, a tragi-comic meditation on the aging novelist, Kogito Chôe, whose first name has the overtones of Descartes’ “cogito.” Changeling (1999) [29] contemplates the death of his brother-in-law, the film director Juzo Itami, here named Gorô Hanawa. The Child of the Sorrowful Countenance (2002) [30] depicts Kogito, now living in Oe’s birthplace as a twentieth-century Don Quixote, and in Good Bye, My Book (2005) [31] an old friend helps him reconstruct and resurrect the image of Yukio Mishima as a cult leader.

Literary Reality in Autobiography

Oe’s narratives are predominantly autobiographical in nature, yet he has distanced himself from the confessional shishôsetsu genre (‘I-novel’), which strives for a complete identification of the writer with the narrator, on account of its lack of what Carlos Fuentes defines as a “literary reality.” Even in his non-fiction works about his relationship with Hikari, Oe creates a literary reality which is “more powerful and more difficult to grapple with” than a “mere copy of reality.” [32]

In Rouse Up O Young Man of the New Age (1983), [33] for example, Hikari’s family has to forever cope with his unpredictable, sometimes violent, behavior and moments of brilliant insight. Parallel to Hikari’s eventful life is Oe’s spiritual journey guided by the comfort and insight of Blake’s poetry. At the end of the novel the family is confronted with the defiance of Hikari, who flatly rejects the family tradition of calling him by his nickname, Eeyore. The father in real life is saddened at first by the realization that he can no longer call the son by that name because the Japanese pronunciation of Eeyore, iiyô, means, ‘That’s OK.’ However, once accepted as a grown-up man, Hikari is now transformed in his father’s mind into the ‘New Man,’ the mythological giant Albion, the symbol of humanity, who will guide his father on a spiritual journey towards grace. The work was awarded the Non-Fiction Osaragi Jiro Award for its candid portrayal of the real Hikari.

Letters for the Memorable Year (1987) [34] details in epistolary form many actual experiences of the author (here called K). K’s letters are addressed to the hermaphrodite Big Brother Gii, whom Oe later identified as the composite of all the people who had guided him as his ‘patron.’ As K’s sympathetic critic, counselor, and correspondent, Gii embraces the myths and legends of the village in the valley as real, and yearns for the resurrection of ‘The One Who Destroys.’ The two main characters each reveal a different side of Oe, the child who chose to return to the valley and the man who broke “a child’s vow sworn in vain, Never to leave that valley his fathers called their home” (from Yeats’s Under Saturn). One moving episode takes place during a visit to the valley by K and Hikari. The father, sleeping fitfully, is talking to himself. Hikari watches him intently and says, “Yes, I understand [what you mean]!” You [K] immediately fell into a deep sleep.” K’s other son and daughter later tell their father, who is ecstatic at the news. The wordsmith K is always calmed by any expression of his son’s feelings, especially via words.

Repetition/Rewriting as a Literary Device

It is little wonder that Hikari, accompanying his father to the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, believed that the prestigious prize was being presented to him. The reappearance of the fictional Hikari, the idiot savant, under various names is, in Oe’s hands, an effective and necessary literary device; no single version could encompass his profound meditation on his son’s – and the human – condition. Repetition becomes the mode of the stories; it shapes their structure and provides an impetus to their overall narrative movement. Oe elaborates on incidents, images, and dialogues, and reintroduces characters in much the same way as a film director’s ‘retakes’ or different versions of a shot correspond to the director’s complex vision of a scene. In fact, Oe regards himself as a “late bloomer,” who only grasps the real significance of what he has written long after it is finished. The newer work unearths some missing link, bringing the writer one step closer to grasping the significance of the original events, images, and dialogues. A given event is less important for Oe than the experience of how that event penetrates to the marrow of Oe the writer. Each iteration is imbued not just with its intrinsic value, but also with the added value of his reinterpretation. For the reader, this process has the cumulative effect of what Oe calls natsukashisa (nostalgia). Taken together, his works coalesce into what he describes as “stories of self and resurrection,” resonating with each other and moving in an upward spiral toward “the great day.”

Oe’s Place in World Literature

While the influence of Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean-Paul Sartre marked Oe’s early works, his mature poetic vision and political acuity in interpreting world events ally him with Auden, Yeats, Blake, Rabelais, Cervantes, and Dante. However, the first Western literary work he encountered was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which his mother borrowed from the library of a culture centre set up by the occupation forces in post-war Japan. He read the original with the help of a Japanese translation that was also available at the centre. Huck’s heroic decision not to inform on the runaway slave Jim and his choice to “go to hell” persisted in Oe’s imagination, and the mischievous and free-spirited Huck became his favorite hero, the embodiment of what is best in democracy.

The influence of French and English linguistic structures is evident in Oe’s long, complex, Faulknerian sentences, as in this quintessential passage from The Football Game of the First Year of Man’en, which also reveals the precise, brilliant interplay of nature imagery, philosophical meditation, and visual pageant:

My field of vision, framed by the opening of the torn-down wall in the dilapidated storehouse above the cellar, was almost entirely obscured by the dense dark forest that lay shrouded in layers of mist, while the coming dawn was barely discernable as a thin mauve halo. High above the right corner of the opening, a segment of the sky was visible, a flaming red. [A year ago] I had seen the same hue on the undersides of dogwood leaves at daybreak in the pit in the backyard of my house where I had hidden, evoking in me the image of the Hell Screen found in the Hollow in the valley. I thought then that I had received a sign. I am now able to decipher that sign whose real significance had been kept from me. The ‘comforting’ hue of the subdued shade of red used in these paintings is intended to be the hue of self-consolation, to help those who, in trying to forget the horrors of confronting their own hell head-on, overcome as much as outgrow them in their efforts to calmly live a matter-of-fact life that is even gloomier, more volatile, and ambiguous. [35]

Oe not only pushes the limits of the Japanese language, but also the Japanese novel, recasting it as a genre compatible with social and political reflection. Another passage from the same narrative interweaves that reflection in the lyrical mode:

The snow would not let up. A strange idée fixe was born inside me: the idea was that in one split second all the myriad tracings of snowflakes could be captured and held as they continued to fall through the breadth of the valley, making no other movement possible. That one instant reached out to infinity. Hazy films of snow sucked in and silenced all sound while the sense of past and future of time was obliterated by the falling snow – ‘time’ as universal as snow. Running naked, Takashi was at once great-grandfather’s younger brother and mine. In the tightly packed strata of this one second of ubiquitous and infinite time were all the split seconds of one hundred years. [36]

It is his desire to see individuals, society, and the world in all their cosmic interconnectedness that gives his works an unprecedented scope of vision, an ambition well suited to his Bachelardian methodology of spawning a “swarm of aberrant images.” [37] The layering of diverse voices and historical events, and the use of satire, grotesque realism, and the concept of liminality all reinforce the ambiguity that has been his central concern from early childhood. In the end, in and through his works, Oe’s humanist belief in reconciliation and redemption allows him to conceive of ambiguity as a facet of the complexity of truth.


The quixotic role of the novelist, as Oe said in his Nobel Lecture, quoting Auden, is to accept both the gifts and the imperfections of humanity even if he “[m]ust suffer dully all the wrong of Man.” He must then employ his hypersensitivity to speak to humanity by evoking the past and challenging the danger of what Oe calls society’s “desensitization of imagination.” [38] His hope is to have an impact on the Japanese people, encouraging them to rethink their own society and culture, but also to provoke critics and readers in other countries to examine their own societies. His is an ambition so grand that, in his words, “no other Japanese writer has ever dreamt of it.” While acknowledging that he writes in an uncommon language, Oe has nonetheless “always wished to be an active participant in the literature of humankind, one that has the capacity for the inclusiveness reflected in cultural studies, one that can be considered for analysis using theories of an all-embracing nature.” [39]

Oe’s unflinching portrayals of the human condition, with its experiences of vulnerability, despair, outrage, compassion, tenderness, hope, and moments of joy, are, in short, stories of everyman and everywoman. To read Oe’s narratives is to experience the transformation of quotidian, static reality into a powerful literary reality; the emancipatory power of a literary language that combines serious meditation and comic relief; and the laying bare of the human condition through the power of poetic vision. Oe’s works have posed a challenge to modern Japanese literature. They are above all a gift to humanity that springs from the deepest recesses of his soul.

1. ‘Introduction’ to Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Oe. Translated and with an introduction by John Nathan, (New York: Grove Press, 1977), p. xxiii.

2. Sakoku shite wa naranai [We Must Not Close Our Nation to the Outside World], (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2004), p. 166.

3. [Kimyôna shigoto] in Oe Kenzaburo zensakuhin [Complete Works of Oe Kenzaburo], series I and II (Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1966-1978). This story appears in vol. 1, series I. Hereafter, OKZ.

4. [Shiiku]. Translated by John Nathan in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Oe. (New York: Grove Press, 1977).

5. [Memushiri kouchi]. Translated and introduced by Paul St John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama. (London: Marion Boyars, 1995).

6. A Public Exchange of Letters with Oe Kenzaburo Writing in Defiance of Violence [Oe Kenzaburo ôfuku shokan Bôryoku ni sakaratte kaku] (Tokyo: Asahi Simbunsha, 2003), p. 21. In addition to Gunter Grass, this collection includes Oe’s correspondences with the following writers, scholars, and activists: Nadine Gordimer, Amos Oz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Susan Sontag, Tesuo Najita, Zheng Yi, Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, Edward W. Said, and Jonathan Schell.

7. [Ningen no hitsuji]. Translated by Frank K. Motofuji. Japan Quarterly vol. 17, no. 2 (1970), pp. 167-77.

8. [Miru mae ni tobe]. OKZ, vol. 1, series II.

9. [Warera no jidai]. OKZ, vol. 2, series II.

10. Can a Writer Remain Absolutely Anti-political? [Sakka wa zettai ni hanseijiteki tariuru ka], OKZ, vol. 3, series I, p. 383.

11. [Sebuntiin]. Seventeen, J. Translated by Luk Van Haute. (New York: Blue Books, 1996).

12. [Seiji shônen shisu].

13. See the footnote #10 above, p. 381.

14. In the ‘Introduction’ to Seventeen, J., p. xi.

15. [Mizu kara waga namida o nuguitamô hi]. Translated by John Nathan in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Oe. (New York: Grove Press, 1977).

16. [Man’en gan’nen no futtobôru]. Translated by John Bester under the title of Silent Cry (New York: Kodansha International, 1974).

17. ‘The Football of Simultaneity’ [Dôjisei no futtobôru] in The Enduring Volition [Jizoku-suru kokorozashi], (Tokyo: Bungei Shunju, 1968), p. 403.

18. [Dôjidai gêmu]. (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1979).

19. [M/T to mori no fushigi no monogatari]. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1986).

20. [Sora no kaibutsu aghwhee]. Translated by John Nathan in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels by Kenzaburo Oe.

21. [Kojinteki na taiken]. Translated by John Nathan (New York: Grove Press, 1969).

22. [Chi chi yo, anata wa doko e iku noa]. OKZ, vol. 3, series II.

23. [Kyôki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo]. See #15 above.

24. [Kôzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi]. OKZ, vol. 4, series II.

25. [Pinch run’naa chôsho]. Translated with an Introduction by Michiko N. Wilson and Michael K. Wilson. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1994).

26. The overall Japanese title of the trilogy is Moeagaru midori no ki. The first volume is Sukuinushi ga nagurareru made (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1993), the second volume, Bashirêshon (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1994), and the third volume, Ôinaru hi ni (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1995).

27. ‘The Man and the Echo’ in W.B. Yeats: Selected Poetry, edited by with an Introduction and Notes by A. Norman Jeffares. (London: MacMillan, 1962). All the quotations from Yeats’s poetry come from this edition.

28. [Chûgaeri]. Translated by Philip Gabriel. (New York: Grove Press, 2003).

29. [Torikaeko]. (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2000).

30. [Ureigao no warabe]. (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2002).

31. [Sayonara, watashi no hon yo!]. (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2005).

32. Carlos Fuentes, ‘Cervantes, or The Critique of Reading’ in Myself with Others: Selected Essays, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 68.

33. [Atarashii hito yo mezame yo]. Translated by John Nathan. (New York: Grove/Atlantaic, 2002).

34. [Natsukashii toshi e no tegami]. (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1987).

35. The Football Game of the First Year of Man’en, OKZ, vol. 1, series II, pp. 263-4. Translated by Michiko N. Wilson, Michael K. Wilson, and Edith Turner.

36. Ibid., p. 144.

37. Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Translated by Collette Gaudin, (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), p. 19. Oe writes about his indebtedness to Bachlard in Sakoku shite wa naranai, p. 142.

38. See the footnote above #6, p. 142.

39. Sakoku shite wa naranai, p. 36.

* Michiko Niikuni Wilson, professor of Japanese language and literature at the University of Virginia, has authored both works of literary criticisms and translations. Her critical work The Marginal World of Kenzaburo Oe: A Study in Themes and Techniques (1986) was the first on Oe to appear in English, and her English translation of one of his major novels, The Pinch Runner Memorandum, appeared shortly before his Nobel Prize award announcement. Professor Wilson is also the author of Gender Is Fair Game: (Re)Thinking the (Fe)Male in Minako Ôba’s Works (1999). Her translation into English of one of Ôba’s best-known novels, Of Birds Crying, has appeared in December 2011 from the Cornell East Asia Series (CEAS). She is also the editor of the Japanese literature-in-translation series, New Japanese Horizons, at Cornell East Asia Series.

First published 26 January 2007

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MLA style: Kenzaburo Oe: Laughing Prophet and Soulful Healer. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 29 Sep 2023. <>

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